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Medora to swell with tourists as summer season begins

MEDORA, N.D. – The opening of this western North Dakota city’s famous musical this weekend kicked off a new summer tourist season.

Besides the Medora Musical, which continues nightly through Sept. 6, more than 30 businesses and attractions reopened, staffed by hundreds of paid seasonal employees, year-round workers and rotating volunteers. Existing businesses also have swelled with seasonal staff members to meet the summer influx of tens of thousands of tourists.

Only about 131 permanent residents live in Medora, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data. But in the summer, thousands flock to the town nestled in the Badlands.

From the revamping of the Pitchfork Steak Fondue prior to the musical variety show to Western carriage rides, Medora resembles its ghost town exterior little through September.

“It’s like night and day,” said Monica Thai, manager of the Rough Riders Hotel. “We can have maybe five people in the whole hotel some nights during the winter.”

Longtime patrons and newcomers will experience a variety of new attractions as they head into town.

Maah Daah Hey Trail addition

Crews have been working for seven years on an addition to the nearly 100-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail, which has challenged bikers, horse riders and hikers since 1999.

Despite not being completely finished, about 43 miles of trail, dubbed the “Maah Daah Hey II,” was set to open Saturday with a ribbon-cutting at Sully Creek State Park.

With the addition, the trail will stretch through the Little Missouri National Grasslands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park from south of Watford City to near Amidon.

For now, the trail will start just east of the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, U.S. Forest Service recreation program manager Paula Jablonski said.

Its true opening should stretch from Sully Creek through private land owned by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation to Bully Pulpit, she said. But the Forest Service is still negotiating possible routes to minimize damage from bikes and horses.

All sections from Sully Creek to the south will be open to all bike traffic, unlike the Maah Daah Hey’s northern trails, Jablonski said. Surfacing work on the trail and improvements to a new campsite at the midpoint of Maah Daah Hey II will progress this summer as well.

New investments for downtown

The Theodore Roosevelt Foundation invested $5 million in infrastructure projects heading into this season. The nonprofit is supported by an endowment created by benefactor Harold Schafer, which has generated $36 million in donations since its inception in 1986.

Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler joked with volunteers last week while discussing the improvements.

“There’s an energy now where everyone can’t wait for opening night because we’ve been working so hard,” Hatzenbuhler said.

At a cost of $2.5 million, a new, much wider road and parking lot now support the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, where the Western variety musical is held. Lights, guardrails and landscaping complement the paved areas.

Sixty-four rooms out of 115 at Medora’s Badlands Hotel have been modernized to 21st-century standards, part of a $2 million project. The entire property will be renovated by 2015.

Hatzenbuhler said the motel, built in the 1960s, serves as the face of Medora for vehicles coming from the west, as it is the first thing people see.

The former Badlands Pizza Parlor on Third Avenue has doubled in size, now named Badlands Pizza and Saloon. To help alleviate skyrocketing rent and property costs, more staff housing units also have been added, both behind Medora’s Bunkhouse Motel and on the eastern edge of town.

Volunteers from 30 states and nearly as many countries support summer town activities, Hatzenbuhler said. They rotate in groups of between 20 and 40 from week to week, moving in and out.

Foundation volunteers and retired spouses Ron and Gayle Christenson of Steele said they consider their time spent more than just hard work.

“It’s like a vacation for us,” Gayle said.

Roosevelt resurrected

Onlookers might have mistaken a T-shirt clad, shorts-wearing and finely mustachioed man as Theodore Roosevelt himself when he set up camp at a Medora campground last week.

It was only Joe Wiegand, who had just arrived for his third year performing “A Teddy Roosevelt Salute to Medora” at the downtown Old Town Hall Theater.

Wiegand’s look and expressions are so uncanny that his impersonation has taken him all over the world, including a stop at the White House to perform for then-President George W. Bush.

He said that during his studies, he has learned a lot from Roosevelt’s attitudes.

“I tell every parent in the crowd during shows, ‘The biggest favor you can do for this republic is to take your children camping,’ “ Wiegand said. “There’s no better way to enrich that child’s life.”

Hatzenbuhler said Wiegand has become an institution separate from Roosevelt.

Wiegand will start performing his daily 3:30 p.m. shows Monday, lasting through Sept. 4. Tickets are available 30 minutes before each show.